Captain of your health (part 1)

Imagine that, all of a sudden, someone kidnapped you and made you the captain of a large ship. Unfortunately, you’ve never learned how to sail. It’s foggy, and you’re desperately trying to steer through shallow channels, to maneuver through the currents while avoiding reefs and icebergs. At the same time, with no experience, you’re supposed to give orders to the crew about when to tighten the rigging, and when to let it loose, when to put out the oars, and when to throw ballast overboard. You’re standing with two feet on dry decking, but you’re so overwhelmed you feel like you’re drowning in the sea you’re supposed to be navigating.

Welcome to the medical system.
You’ve been made captain of your health. That’s fine when everything is smooth sailing, but once your ship starts listing to one side and taking on water, it becomes a formidable task. It’s now your job to build a crew – to find a medical team who can help you. That means days months probably years of searching for a good first mate. When you finally build your crew, you’ll have to be constantly evaluating them, and tossing overboard anyone who’s not pulling their weight: your ship won’t have room for shabby pirates. While you’re doing all that, you’ll be desperately trying to navigate the physical, emotional, mental and financial obstacles of day-to-day life while suffering life-altering symptoms.

That’s why it’s possible to be standing with two feet on dry ground, but be so overwhelmed that you feel like you’re drowning in the system that’s supposed to be helping.

I’ve been ‘sailing’ for twelve years now. I wasn’t Captain at first – that was my Mum. I was only fourteen, and she was my advocate, my knight in shining armour. She was the one navigating the medical system for me. I was just a crew member, along for the ride. As I got older, I was promoted to first mate, and became more involved. Eventually, when I became an adult, Mum stepped down as Captain, and I gingerly took the wheel. I kept her on as first mate though, her experience is too valuable to let go, and I value her opinion very highly.

I know that most people didn’t have an amazing mentor Captain like I did.
So I wanted to share some of the practical tips I’ve learned during my voyage.
There’s two main points I want to cover, but this post would get too long if I shared them both, so I’m breaking it up into two parts.

Part 1: Making appointments
Part 2: Getting the most out of your appointments

*   *   *   *   *

Making appointments

Before you even get to see a doctor, you have to get an appointment with them.
That usually means trying to convince a receptionist that you need an appointment. I’ve written about some of the difficulties of that here.

“A big part of the job of a doctor’s receptionist is to filter for the doctor – to figure out, often without much training or guidance, what to fill the doctor’s finite time with. And I would be doing this alone, with a line of patients waiting at the door when I opened it and three phone lines ringing – this is not an unusual situation. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are a lot of medical receptionists out there who could do better. But there are also a lot who are humans doing the best they can in a tough job – who go home at night and worry if they made the right call, who shed a tear when a patient they have got to know dies.~ Kaitlyn

So how do you get through to that human on the other end?


  • Be rude (demanding, obnoxious, insulting, threatening etc). It’s not only unbecoming, it’s also counter-productive and will make a receptionist less inclined to help you.


  • Learn the first name of the person you’re speaking to, and use it.
  • Be patient. Remember that you’re not the only person who needs to see the doctor (do you really need an appointment straight away for that sore throat?).
  • Let them know if you need a longer appointment (the doctor is not going to be able to fix 15 problems in your five minute slot!).
  • Stand firm when something is urgent or important (see note below). But…
  • Be polite, and remember your manners, like please and thank you.

Some people struggle with the balance of being both firm and polite.
They worry about slipping over to the dark side and becoming demanding and rude, so they err on the side of timid and let important things slide.
Please, if something is urgent or important, don’t let it go.

Like Kaitlyn said, it’s the receptionist’s job to filter for the doctor.
It’s your job to get them to understand when it’s important that you be allowed through the filter.

The key to doing this well is making a list before you call (at least mentally, but on paper is best).

  • Why am I making this appointment?
    e.g. Doctor so-and-so has referred me because of xyz, or I’m concerned about xyz / I’m having xyz symptoms / I’m unwell…
  • Are there any doctor’s notes on the referral / did he give you any instructions?
    e.g. Category one patient / needs to be seen as soon as possible / urgent…
  • If I need an urgent appointment, why is it urgent?
    e.g. Test results have come back showing xyz / I’m having surgery to fix xyz and need the results before then / I’ve been having *insert serious symptom/s*…
  • What am I willing to do?
    e.g. Come in any time or day / travel further to see the doctor in his rooms at a different location / see the doctor in his private rooms instead of through the public system…

Now, instead of calling and saying, “I need an appointment with Dr. Brown”, you can say, “Dr. Johnson has asked me to call and make an urgent appointment with Dr. Brown, because my recent test results have just come back showing that my white blood count is dangerously low. He’s marked it as needing attention as soon as possible”.

Can you see how all that information will make a difference to the receptionist? Now they can properly screen you, and hopefully they’ll book you an urgent appointment.

Sometimes you have to remind them of some of the information you stated before you get an earlier appointment, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t think that six weeks away is soon enough. Dr. Johnson asked me to call and make an urgent appointment, and he’s marked my case as needing attention as soon as possible. I can come any day, and I’m happy to travel to see him at *xyz* instead of *abc*”. Often, that little reminder nudge is all that is needed to get you an earlier appointment (in urgent cases).

If you truly need an urgent appointment, but the receptionist won’t budge on when they can book you in, it’s best to book the appointment, and then call your referring doctor’s office, repeating the information you gave before.

“Hi, Dr. Johnson asked me to call and make an urgent appointment with Dr. Brown, because my recent test results have just come back showing that my white blood count is dangerously low. He’s marked it as needing attention as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I can’t get in to see Dr. Brown until *xyz*, which is six weeks away. Can you please let Dr. Johnson know?”

Dr. Johnson might decide that six weeks away is soon enough. If he doesn’t think so, he’ll most likely make a personal call to Dr. Brown’s receptionist, and get you an earlier appointment.

After you’ve gotten your appointment, make sure to thank the receptionist. If anyone (e.g. nurse, doctor, receptionist) has especially gone out of their way to help you, send them a grateful email or post a small card to thank them. Not only will this brighten their day, they’ll be more inclined to help you next time, because they know that you appreciate it, rather than taking it for granted like many other patients.

I know these are simple tips, but I promise that they really do help you to navigate the stormy seas a little more easily.

If you learned something, were reminded of something, or thought of something I forgot to include, let me know in the comments! ❤

xx S.

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